Mary Napoleon

The first few weeks of a new community are critical. If your first users don’t feel welcomed, or feel like they understand what purpose your community serves in their lives, they will be unlikely to stick around.

The following are some suggestions we’ve learned building and growing communities.

Seed the network

Don’t rely on your first users to take it upon themselves to create lots of compelling content – they aren’t nearly as motivated to see your community succeed as you are.

Instead, develop a strategy for “seeding” the network. Conduct a brainstorming session to identify threads you think might be interesting or spur discussion. Things that are controversial, things that don’t require a “right” answer, and things that lend themselves well to short quick responses tend to work best.

If you’re having a hard time coming up with ideas, you can do some secondary research. Go to websites in a similar niche and spend time looking at threads that generate a lot of engagement. It’s likely they’ll generate good conversation for you too.

Queue up as many of these as possible in a spreadsheet. During the first few weeks, drip these out throughout the day. You want to have 10 threads per day at a minimum in the early days of your community to make sure it doesn’t look like a ghost town for new users. Within a few weeks, they will hopefully start creating the bulk of the new content themselves.

Train people on what you want the community to look like.

Similar to seeding the network, make a list of the kinds of content you want your community to feature. While most people will let the community take on a life of its own, this approach has its risks. Be clear on what your goals are for the community, and try to take things into your own hands to make that happen.

Perhaps you think organizing local offline events will become a big part of your ultimate strategy. Start seeding questions in the community asking people where they live – even though you have the data on the backend that already tells you that, it teaches your users that this can be a place to meet people near me.

Leave super fast comments

A big part of what makes social sites successful is the habit loop that gets formed. User creates content, others engage with that content, user feels good, and is more likely to do it again.

Again, rather than waiting for this to happen on its own, take control. Set a goal to answer questions or leave comments on every new thread in the community for at least the first month. Try to do so within 10 minutes or less – this will notify the user they got a response, and close the loop for them. It also communicates that there are people in the community all the time, and that it’s a vibrant place to be.

Thank users for joining

We’ve found that a great way to increase retention is to send users a private message within 24 hours of joining. While an email can accomplish the same task and should definitely be leveraged, a simple quick informal message thanking them and welcoming them to the community can be a much more effective mechanism in driving users back into the site. This allows you to trigger notifications for users, even if they don’t create content themselves during first use.

Introduce users to each other

Along the same lines, it can pay to keep a mental (or even better, written) log of the kinds of questions users tend to answer. When a new user asks about a topic, see who in the community has answered questions like that before and invite them to comment.

While the 5 strategies above don’t guarantee success, they dramatically increase the likelihood of an effective, engaging community over the long term.